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Tarot for the Masses, Mid-20th Century

Let’s recap the first half of the twentieth century to see why 1959 and 1960 were such watershed years for American Tarot.

The first two decades of the twentieth century were a time of massive social change. Suffragettes agitated for the vote, Freud wrote and lectured on sexuality and the unconscious, Marcel Duchamp hung a urinal in a gallery and called it art, Kandinsky created the first abstract paintings, and Mary Pickford was the first international movie star. Back then you could crank up your Model T, go on a road trip and bring home snapshots taken with your Kodak Brownie camera.

This atmosphere of openness and exploration carried over into spiritual life. During the teens and twenties, spiritual seekers joined the Theosophical society, studied Tarot at Golden Dawn temples and read Waite’s Pictorial Key to Tarot. The adventurous few hooked up with Aleister Crowley during his American tour from 1914 to 1917. By 1920, three Americans had repackaged traditional esoteric wisdom into correspondence courses. P. F. Case taught his version of the Golden Dawn’s system through the Builders of the Adytum. C. Z. Zain packaged the French esoteric tradition as taught by Paul Christian into a similar format. Homer and Harriette Curtiss, authors of the first American Tarot book, founded the Order of Christian Mystics and a publishing house to disseminate their teachings via correspondence course.

The middle of the 20th century was a time of quiet development. Case and Zain continued offering correspondence courses and the Curtiss’s tarot books sold continuously. Israel Regardie opened up the inner secrets of the Golden Dawn for all to see. The Knapp-Hall and Thoth decks were in the works but wouldn’t be available to the public until much later. Gertrude Moakely published her ground-breaking study on Tarot’s medieval roots, but only her fellow scholars were aware of it. In France, Paul Marteau liberalized Tarot studies by ignoring occult correspondences and instructing his readers to pay close attention to the imagery and color symbolism of the Tarot de Marseilles. In Britain, the Witchcraft Act was repealed, opening up the market for the publication and sale of tarot decks. Several deck styles were in circulation in the early 20th century, but the Rider Waite Smith quickly left the others in the dust, thanks to its availability and user-friendly design.

In mid-century, two events set the stage for a radical paradigm shift. In 1959, University Books began printing the Waite Smith deck and Waite’s book The Pictorial Key to Tarot (PKT), making them more accessible to the general public. Then in 1960 Eden Gray published her first book, Tarot Revealed: A Modern Guide to Reading the Tarot Cards. Gray’s book with its simple, straightforward instructions became the template for future how-to-read-tarot books. Before Gray, reading instructions, spreads, and divinatory meanings had been an afterthought stuffed in the back of esoteric books. After Gray, Tarot became user-friendly and accessible.

The Tarot Revealed repackaged Waite’s The Pictorial Key to Tarot without the mysticism. Each card was illustrated with line drawings lifted from the PKT and accompanied by upright and reversed meanings described in a down-to-earth, conversational voice. The book included a sample reading using the Celtic Cross. Gray’s three books on tarot were wildly popular and are still in print. Thanks to these books, Waite’s deck, his card meanings and the Celtic Cross spread became identified with Anglo-American Tarot.

In her book, Gray insisted that anyone can learn to read cards. Your success as a reader depends on your level of intuitive development and your psychological insight. This was a radical paradigm shift! You didn’t have to know the “correct” Hebrew letter and tree of life correspondences to understand a card. You didn’t need to be a spiritual adept to give a reading. All you needed was a deck of RWS cards, Gray’s book for reference, a kitchen table, and some common sense and empathy.

During the 1960s, Tarot became more available to the general population, but except for Eden Gray, most of the tarot books of the 1960s looked back to the esoteric traditions of previous decades. Gareth Knight, currently one of the most influential occultists in the English-speaking world, started his publishing career in the mid-1960s. Oswald Wirth’s book was reissued in French with a set of 22 trumps in 1966. Mouni Sadhu, Mayananda and Idries Shah connected the Tarot to various spiritual traditions in their publications.

Even Eden Gray reverted to the esoteric paradigm. Her 1970 book, A Complete Guide to the Tarot, contained chapters on the Golden Dawn’s attributions of numerology, Kabbalah and astrology to the cards. The bibliography was dominated by occultists with one foot in the 19th century such as Waite, Papus, and P. F. Case. The reader is led to believe that the Golden Dawn’s tarot correspondences are universal truths, setting a precedent for authors to uncritically repeat the Golden Dawn’s system of correspondences until they became unquestioned laws.

In 1968, Frankie Albano re-colored the Rider Waite Smith deck in stark, almost psychedelic colors. The following year, David Palladini published his Aquarian Tarot, a re-visioning of the RWS deck. These decks started a landslide of RWS re-colorings, adaptations and spin-offs that confirmed this deck as the standard American deck and started a creative trend that isn’t slowing down. In 1969 Stuart Kaplan, owner of U.S. Games, Inc. printed his first Tarot deck. His contemporary decks, RWS spinoffs, historic reproductions, and tarot encyclopedias revolutionized the tarot world by making deck collecting possible for anyone.

By the late 1960s, tarot reading had become freer and more intuitive. But the RWS was still the only deck readily available, and one learned to read by learning the “correct” card interpretations from Eden Gray or another paper back book.  Then in 1968, the publication of a radically new deck ushered in the post-modern tarot era.

The New Tarot: The Tarot for the Aquarian Age by John Cooke and Rosalind Sharpe was channeled through a Ouija board. The introduction to the book states that tarot images are archetypal symbols of unconscious processes that can serve to make visible what was hidden in the subconscious. It ends with the very radical statement that Everyman finds his own symbols in the Tarot.

This was a huge paradigm shift. Studying Tarot no longer had to mean buying a RWS deck and memorizing card meanings from a book. According to Cooke and Sharp, the cards’ meanings are already in your subconscious waiting to be unlocked by the magic of the tarot image. You are no longer confined to working with a deck you find on the shelf. If a spiritual entity, or your own inner guidance, inspires you to create your own deck, then go for it! Your insights are just as valid as Wirth’s or Waite’s. In fact, they’re more valid, because the world’s consciousness is evolving, calling for new images for new times.

On the next page we’ll take a look at post-modern tarot.

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